San Luis Valley in Transition: 2003

Colorado’s San Luis Valley has been continuously served by rail since 1877, when the Rio Grande built its narrow-gauge (NG) line over La Veta Pass.  Since then, many changes have taken place, with the entry of standard-gauge rail in 1899, the gradual withering of NG branches, the divestment of the NG line west of Antonito in 1969, and finally the merger of the Rio Grande with the Southern Pacific in 1988.  Between that time and 1996, SPL operated the remaining track in the valley, which was laid out in a large Y-shape  One arm went to Antonito and the Perlite and scoria operations; the other arm to Monte Vista to interchange with the San Luis Central, and extending as far as South Fork.  The trunk line ran east from Alamosa over La Veta Pass and
ultimately to Pueblo.

In 1996, Union Pacific acquired Southern Pacific Lines.  Never happy with the light traffic native to the Alamosa Sub, UP sought for a way to spin off the operation.  In early 2003, they finally found a buyer in the form of  RailAmerica, a shortline   operator with a proven “track” record.  The transfer was delayed several times due to environmental issues, i.e. disputes over whose responsibility it was to clean up some old hazardous materials, but the transfer was finally effected June 28, 2003.

Meanwhile, when the sale was being rumored, I decided it was now or never to get a last look at Rio Grande power in the valley.  UP had been using a mix of locomotives that included several Rio Grande GP40-2s.  Accordingly, at 2:45 AM on March 7th, my daughter and I piled into the car and left Farmington for Alamosa, to record the day’s action on film for posterity.

The usual daily operation was something like this: sometime after midnight, the inbound train would leave Pueblo, typically arriving in Alamosa around 6:00 AM.  The local crews would take over and make up trains for Antonito and/or Monte Vista, using units from the road power consist.  After the runs out and back, the outbound train would be made up, the road power reassembled, and the train would depart in late afternoon. 

Our plan was to be in Alamosa when the inbound train arrived.  We showed up in town around dawn, but there was no sign of the train.  We poked around the yard for a little while as the sun came up, waiting for something to happen.


This is a look to the east, with the rising sun silhouetting a parked hopper (second picture below).


Another silhouette shot, from a different set of cars (the ones in the right of the above image).


This is a shot of a rarity in the year 2003: a Rio Grande covered hopper. 
It was sitting by itself in the east end of the downtown yard.


And here’s a look in the opposite direction from the first two shots, looking west at the downtown yard and the mountains beyond.  It was a pretty empty place at that time, and it looks a lot different now.  The track on the left had been used in recent years to load log-rack cars.  Now it’s gone.

After waiting for a while, I decided to gamble that the train hadn’t already arrived and been split up for the twin locals, and we headed east to intercept it.  Nothing but empty tracks.  East of Fort Garland, we took Trinchera Ranch road to get on the south side of the tracks (better light for photos). Still nothing.  Following the gravel roads to the east, we ended up by Mortimer, a railroad location that exists only on maps now.

Still nothing.  Where was the train?  It was nearly 10:00.  After wandering around in the snow for a while, we decided to head further up the pass for one last look before we gave up.  Backtracking to the highway, we headed east on US 160 again.  Just as we got to where the railroad diverges from the highway at the Forbes Park entrance, lo and behold, headlights!  The inbound train was creeping down the pass at 10 mph.  Time to get to work.


The sun was on the wrong side, but I commenced shooting anyway.  The snowy landscape was a wonderful backdrop for the train.


 There were five units on the head end– three Cotton Belt GP40Ms and two Rio Grande GP40-2s.  They were leading… seven cars.  Frankly, it looked a little ridiculous, all that power for seven empties.  But I wasn’t
complaining at this point. 

Realizing that the light was not going to improve at this spot, we headed west to set up for the curve near Mortimer.


After more waiting for the creeping train, we were rewarded by this view.  Here the power is coming into view.


And here we see the full locomotive consist.  It was a day for majestic scenery as a backdrop for the rail action. The locomotives are headed into the shade, but now we can see the entire train.

 Given the train’s slow speed, we figured to have plenty of time to get around to the south.  We went back to Trinchera Road and headed east on the gravel roads.


Here the train is dwarfed by the snow-covered majesty of Mount Lindsey, one of Blanca’s eastern neighbors.  Usually this scene wasn’t possible due to the train’s nocturnal schedule.


The train with Blanca Peak…


Here’s our first close look, at the Trinchera grade crossing.  Back in the film days I didn’t have a hood for my lens…

The lead unit was SSW No. 7286, followed by D&RGW Nos. 3128 and 3121, and SSW Nos. 7282 and 7291.


Looking the other way (west) as the train rumbles past on its way to Fort
Garland and points west…

We leapfrogged the train back to Alamosa, stopping for video at the town of Blanca, and beat it back to East Yard in plenty of time.  Here we met up with Ken, a fellow railfan who’d come down from Buena Vista.


Here it is arriving at East Yard.


Here’s a broadside look at one of Rio Grande’s finest.  She’s starting
to show her age, which is about 29 years at the time of the photo.


After dropping the cars on one of the yard tracks, the power headed over to the main Alamosa yard to change crews and get ready to make up the locals.


Once in the west yard, the crew set about breaking up the road consist.  In the past I’d observed them taking one or two units on the locals and leaving the rest near the old depot, but today they changed things up a bit.  Three units would make the run to Antonito, and the other two would go to Monte Vista.  Here a crewman moves up to the lead unit.


One thing about railroads… the work proceeds at its own pace, and that appears slow to the layman.  We had plenty of time for my daughter to take my portrait.  Who knows when another opportunity would arise that we could do this next to D&RGW power?  (Answer: never.)


After cutting off the two trailing SSW units, the front three went west to switch to a parallel track so they could get around them and head back to East Yard.  The mountains were snowcapped in every direction, and the sky was crystalline blue– an absolutely gorgeous day.


The plate covering the hole left by the removed Mars light on No. 3121 bore the inscription “Hard Work Will Set You Free”.  Grim railroad humor?

We followed the 3-unit consist back to East Yard, expecting to see some switching.  They cut off one covered hopper and pulled west… and kept going!  They even had the FRED on the coupler.  Now, that’s a short train!  The plan was to follow the Antonito local, and since it had the Grande power, we prepared to head south (this meant, going to McDonald’s for chow first).

The drive to Antonito takes less than a half-hour, but the train was going much slower than us so there was really no hurry.  We passed it before La Jara, and headed on down to the bridge over the Conejos River on the north edge of Antonito.  Ken was there again, and we scrounged around for old boxcar door seals in the ballast while we waited.  They were everywhere– little rusty strips of metal with numbers stamped in them.

SLV021 Here’s a look at the approaching train.  Fear not; I’m at 200mm telephoto and the train is still several minutes away.  The bridge still has a Rio Grande- Royal Gorge Route herald painted on the left-hand truss face.  It’s hard to make out at this distance, but quite plain if you walk up to it.
SLV025 See what I mean about it being a short train?  Now, if only the good light had been on the Grande units…


(Mind you, I have nothing against the Cotton Belt; just a lot more *for* the D&RGW.  Sue me…)

The perlite and scoria operations are just beyond the south edge of town.  Scoria is loaded on a siding north of the perlite plant, by a simple mobile conveyor loader.  Scoria, by the way, is simply volcanic rock– used for decorative landscaping, among other things.  Perlite is a silicous mineral used in construction, horticultural, and industrial applications (see here for more information).

SLV026 Here we see scoria loading into open hoppers, as the train passes by on the east side.
SLV027 The crew cleared the south switch of the small holding yard by the scoria loadout, and backed the whole “train” onto the siding, where they dropped the hopper.
SLV028 As the power clears the main, we can clearly see the perlite plant, operated by Harborlite Corporation.
SLV031 After gathering up the outbound covered hoppers of perlite, the train (with the Rio Grande units on the point now) moved back toward the scoria loadout to collect a few more cars.
SLV035 The San Luis Valley is known for its windy conditions.  Here we see microdunes of volcanic rock, highlighted by lighter-colored windblown sand.  Scoria hoppers are in the background.

We headed back north, stopping in La Jara to shoot a roll-by.  The light, again, was terrible, although that didn’t stop me from burning a roll of film.  It seemed we had to wait forever for the train to arrive, and probably looked a little foolish, kicking around the back lots along the tracks downtown.  On the other hand, I suspect the locals are used to it by now…

LaJara2 Here the train makes its appearance.  It sure was nice to see those two Grandes on the point!
LaJara4 Now passing us, the train approaches the town hall (ex-depot, from the look of it), just visible in front of No. 3121.

That was pretty much it for the day.  We passed the train again on the way north, but didn’t stop anymore.  It had been a long, exhausting day, and we still had a four-hour drive ahead of us.  Back in Alamosa we saw the other two SSW units returning from Monte Vista, but weren’t in a position to photograph them.  And this was the last I saw of the D&RGW / SP / UP tenure in the San Luis Valley.

(c) 2003, 2021, James R. Griffin.  All rights reserved. actionroadlogobang


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